- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There’s only one surprise regarding the Washington Redskins’ 3-3 record: Some folks are unpleasantly surprised.

Realists knew better entering the season. They saw the holes that remained after coach Mike Shanahan finished his patch-up job last summer. They recognized the lack of depth and playmakers, even while acknowledging the upgraded roster. Most importantly, they realized that serious improvement on last year’s 6-10 record was improbable given Washington’s quarterback situation.

But dreaming is among fans’ favorite pastimes, and there’s nothing like a fast start to make their imaginations race. Especially when their team opens by knocking off a division foe that had dominated the rivalry lately, winning six in a row and nine of the last 10.

Beating the New York Giants - depleted as they were in Week 1 - was the worst thing to happen for fans’ expectations, which suddenly were inflated.

From 1-0 to 3-1, the Redskins enjoyed playing the role of a first-place team. They talked like one, acted like one and looked like one (if you didn’t peer too long). The defense was solid, the quarterbacking was serviceable and the punting was spectacular. Similar ingredients have been a recipe for success in the NFL. Why not Washington?

So what if the running game was struggling with consistency? Who cared if the ball-hawking defense was causing few turnovers? What did it matter that the roster spot used for a small return specialist was returning small dividends? The Redskins won three of their first four games and nearly beat the Dallas Cowboys!

But 3-1 didn’t erase concerns; it merely masked them. It took doubt, fear and worry and hid them in plain sight, persuading some fans to believe that Rex Grossman was right and the prognosticators were wrong about Washington’s prospects.

In August, Grossman said he thought the Redskins would win the NFC East. A bunch of preseason magazines said otherwise, placing Washington among the NFL’s worst teams, predicting just a few victories. Michael Lombardi of NFL.com was the only national observer who agreed with Grossman, picking Washington to win its division.

It can still happen - just like Tim Tebow can engineer a pair of touchdown drives in the final 5:53 of another game. But no one should expect it.

I figured the Redskins’ best-case scenario for this season was around 8-8. Since outcomes often swing on a couple of plays here and there, with teams winning and losing games they probably shouldn’t, my predictions include a margin of error. Given that good measure, Washington could fall between (mildly pessimistic) 6-10 and (wildly optimistic) 10-6 in the second year of Shanahan’s massive rebuilding project.

Teams are measured by wins and losses, ultimately - the Bill Parcells’ line that “you are what your record says you are.” However, finishing 6-10 this year with more talented players would be an improvement over last year’s 6-10 finish with a deficient roster. Having better pieces in place puts the Redskins that much closer to an actual turnaround in Year 3.

Shanahan has gambled twice at quarterback, first bringing in Donovan McNabb and then going with Grossman/John Beck, which arguably has slowed progress as much as anything. But No. 1 draft picks Trent Williams and Ryan Kerrigan, plus additions to the defensive line, secondary and running back corps look promising. All of those were pressing needs, and there’s no telling what sacrifices would’ve been necessary for a better QB.

Whether you get ‘A’ and then add ‘B,’ or go in reverse order, you still need both pieces in place before reaching ‘C,’ which stands for “contender.” If the Redskins thought they were there at 3-1, they’re supposed to believe in themselves. And if they aren’t certain now, at 3-3 and racked with injuries to several starters, that’s understandable, too.

Either way, they’re looking at Buffalo, San Francisco, Miami and Dallas next, a stretch that could produce the ugly inverse of their 3-1 start. Washington has much work ahead to finish at its current .500 mark.

“We have to win,” Shanahan said Monday, asked about the team’s mentality going forward. “That’s the nature of the game. We have to find a way to win. The guys that will step up are guys that are going to be starters.

“They’re on our football team for a reason,” he said. “Now, we have a chance to see what they could do. We have a lot of young players that we’re going to get a chance to see how much talent they do have and hopefully they can improve and hopefully it’s quick.”

At this rate, “quick” means the ability to contribute to a contender by 2012, provided a QB is in place - and ready to play.

The only surprise is that anyone expected anything else this season.

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